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What Studying at Shanghai Jiao Tong University Was Really Like

Are you wondering what studying at Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) is really like? Then you’ve come to the right place.

As an international student, I didn’t know what to expect of studying in China.

Although I had visited China a couple of times before, I had never been in Shanghai, did not know anyone there and I couldn’t read nor write Mandarin.

That’s why I’ve written this article, to give you an insight of what studying in China, specifically at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, can look and feel like.

To give you a better view: I studied Chinese Law in China in 2019-2020 for half a year. This was at Koguan Law School at SJTU. I stayed on the Xuhui campus, one of the most beautiful campuses I’ve ever seen.

It was right before the world went into lockdown, which made studying in China an extra bizarre experience.

Especially when I look back at it. Since then, the world, and especially China, have never been the same again.

Shanghai Jiao Tong University building
Building at Shanghai Jiao Tong University @Xuhui Campus
shanghai jiao tong university
Yes, those are Chinese flags in the background

What studying at Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) was like

SJTU was founded in Shanghai in 1896, with the goal of cultivating talented professionals for China. Nowadays, SJTU has become one of the world’s top 100 universities.

The university is known as one of the most prestigious universities in China. Today, it’s even ranked #51 in the QS World University Rankings 2024.

So, what was it truly like to study at SJTU as an international student from overseas? Well it was very very different than back home. Which is good, because I think you grow the most when you get out of your comfort zone.

I can reassure you that studying in China will absolutely get you out of your comfort zone. Read on to find out more about my review of studying at SJTU as an international student.

studying in china
Busy Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai

In one word: Intense

One word that describes my study experience in China the best is: intense. Studying and living in China as an expat can be extremely intense. In good and in bad ways, but mostly in good ways.

Normally I’m very sensitive to all kinds of noises and crowds. But somehow in Shanghai this makes you feel alive instead of overstimulated.

Due to the language barrier and the difference in culture, your study experience will probably also be very intense.

Incredible experiences

At the same time, studying in China was incredible and one of my most memorable times in my life. It was definitely life changing. When you have to adapt to a different culture and language all the time, you will really learn how to problem solve.

Very modern

When I was studying in China, QR codes were already widely used. However, in Europe this wasn’t the case at all. It took years before they finally worked with QR codes as well. On campus there would be robots driving around to deliver packages. With these kind of things, China felt a lot more modern than Europe.

Shanghai Jiao Tong University
Xuhui Campus

Organized for such a populated city

You wouldn’t expect a multimillion people city like Shanghai to be organized. But I thought it was actually surprisingly organized. If you walk on the famous Nanjing Street you might not feel this way of course.

However, if you look at the subway, where thousands of people travel with every day, it’s actually pretty well organized.

By the way, if you want to be well-organized in this big city, then make sure to open your bank account as soon as possible. Also get a Chinese sim card as soon as possible, so you can actually communicate with people.

This also makes it a lot easier to pay with apps such as Wechat and Alipay. You will need this when studying in China. There’s a Bank of China located next to one of the entrances at SJTU on Xuhui Campus.

Bank of China near SJTU
Bank of China next to Shanghai Jiao Tong University

Difficult to navigate

Although most things are pretty well organized, it can get confusing to navigate. I’ve gotten lost so many times that it’s a bit embarrassing. For example, some subway stations can have 8 different exits.

The Xuhui Campus also has several exits and entrances, which I found very confusing. It also took a little time to get used to the subway system and all its different routes. I do think this is partly because my own sense of orientation isn’t the best.

Shanghai Jiao Tong University
One of the entrances at SJTU

A very peaceful campus

The Xuhui Campus of Shanghai Jiao Tong University isn’t as big as Minhang Campus, but I would choose it above Minhang Campus every day. The Xuhui Campus is very clean and green even though it’s located in the centre of Shanghai.

To be more precise, it’s located in the Xuhui neighborhood, one of the most beautiful neighborhoods of Shanghai. This neighborhood is part of the former French concession. If you walk around, have a look at the interesting and beautiful shapes of the trees.

What’s even better is that there’s an athletic field located on campus where you can go running. There is a basketball field, there’s a tennis court and there are lots of trees and benches. There’s also a cafeteria on the campus and there’s even a Starbucks!?

Shanghai Jiao Tong University
Wandering around Xuhui Campus

You can adapt to almost everything

If China has taught me anything, it’s that you’re a lot more flexible than you think you are. A small room? That’s fine, you’ll get used to it.

Cold water when showering because you don’t know how to pop up your student card in Chinese? No worries, you’ll get used to it.

Not being able to read anything on the streets? You’ll get used to it. A taxi app only written in Chinese characters? You’ll find a way to puzzle your way to your destination.

After studying in China, you’ll be a great problem solver. A quality you will forever be grateful for.

Lots of cameras

One thing you’ll notice when you’re studying in China is the amount of cameras. There are lots of cameras everywhere and they’re not hidden. They’re very transparent about the presence of cameras.

In all public spaces you’ll see a couple of cameras. This may sound scary, but it actually felt completely the opposite. When walking alone at night it actually felt very safe, probably because of the amount of cameras.

When you’re in the city centre of Shanghai, nearby the Bund, have a look at the cameras at the crossovers. If someone crosses when the sign is red, a photo will be taken of their face and it will be displayed there, literally a ”walk of shame”. Pretty strange indeed.

SJTU campus
Look closely at the tennis court (cameras), on the Xuhui Campus at SJTU

A lot of unknown food

It’s not always easy to know what you’re eating in China. Especially if you don’t speak or read Mandarin fluently.

Don’t expect the food names in the cafeteria on SJTU to be translated in English. What food you’re looking at is written in Mandarin. So it can feel a bit like a guessing game.

If you don’t mind this, you can just point at the food you want and you’ll get a very affordable meal. When I was studying at SJTU you could get a complete canteen meal for around 1 euros and 30 cents in total, which I think is incredibly affordable!

Shanghai Jiao Tong University
The cafeteria at SJTU

At other restaurants in the area you can have a meal for around 3 to 4 euros.

To be honest, in Shanghai you can eat for as little as a few euros to as many as a few thousand euros. There are lots of high-end places, but also lots of affordable little restaurants.

Not only at the cafeteria, but also in lots of restaurants the menu will only be written in Mandarin. See this as a good Chinese language test / challenge. You can also use apps for translating of course.

restaurant in Shanghai

Wechat is the new Whatsapp

Say goodbye to Whatsapp and say hello to Wechat, your new platform for almost everything. If you want to post something, you can do this on Wechat. Instead of communicating on Whatsapp, you can do this on Wechat.

If you want to pay for something, you can do this on Wechat. It’s the answer to a lot of things when studying in China.

My Wechat got blocked once and I really didn’t know how to live my life in China anymore, as I was so dependant on it. Eventually a local from Shanghai helped me to get it unblocked again, which I was very thankful for.

Almost everything gets delivered easily & fast

You can order a bubble tea and can get it delivered in ten minutes. Almost everything can be delivered in Shanghai, and at a very fast pace. There are different apps in China for this. On some you can also order very affordable clothing.

When studying at SJTU, you will at least once see delivery guys running across the campus to deliver whatever is ordered as quickly as possible.

Shanghai has many faces

Shanghai is a great place to live as an international student. Especially if you stay in the Xuhui neighborhood, for example on the Xuhui campus. This feels like a completely different world than when you’re walking on the Bund for example.

There are nice green areas and parks, yet there are also lots of sky-high buildings. There are many fancy rooftop bars, but there are also lots of cheap small restaurants in Shanghai.

Contrary to the Bund and Nanjing Street, there are still lesser known places in Shanghai. Visit its hidden museums, such as the Propaganda Poster Art Centre and the Jewish Refugees Museum. Another hidden gem in the city is the Shanghai Confucian Temple.

Just like the rest of the country, Shanghai has many faces. To really get to know China, you should see China beyond Shanghai. For example, visit the Shengsi Islands, a nearby water town or one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen: Huangshan, the Yellow Mountains.

Huangshan
Huangshan, Yellow Mountains

Your VPN is your new best friend

Maybe you use a VPN at home, because of privacy reasons. Or maybe you’ve never heard of a VPN before visiting China.

Nevertheless, you’ll need a VPN when studying in China. Especially if you want to keep in contact with family or friends from back home. It’s one of the essentials you’ll need in China.

Instagram, Facebook, Google, they’re all blocked. So unless you’re using a good (paid) VPN, you won’t be able to access them.

During Golden Week your VPN suddenly might not work anymore. This is not unusual. Ask around what VPN does work after Golden Week and get that one.

Before Golden Week, I used ExpressVPN, which worked perfectly until this festive week.

Golden Week gives a new meaning to ”crowded”

If you think Shanghai normally gets crowded, be prepared for the crowds at Golden Week. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen so many people before.

Golden Week truly gives a new definition to the word ”crowded”. If you’re planning on traveling in China during Golden Week, maybe change this to a different time.

Golden Week in China

Open minded environment

A lot of the people who I met in China we’re very open minded. Open to try new things, try new foods and embrace new cultures. Not just expats, but also a lot of locals.

What I found most impressive is how open minded the professors were. They were always very interested in what the judicial system was like in other countries, especially in the Netherlands, because of the presence of the Peace Palace etc.

Most teachers and locals were very eager to learn from other cultures. This is one of the things that surprised me the most at SJTU. This really taught me a different, better perspective.

Yellow Mountains

In conclusion

Studying at Shanghai Jiao Tong University was very intense. In good and in bad ways. Your senses will be stimulated in every kind of way. Life is easier in a way, as you can get almost everything delivered very quickly.

At the same time, there are many challenges, such as the difference in culture and language. If you’re thinking of studying in China, maybe even at SJTU, I would highly recommend it.

You’ll get out of your comfort zone in ways you couldn’t imagine, you’ll try lots of new foods and you’ll be surrounded by a very open minded environment.

Away with Danae

Koguan Law School

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2 Comments

  1. Hi Danae,

    Thanks for the interesting content. Quick question, how did you pay using your international currency (euros, I believe)? For instance, did you remit to your Chinese bank account and then use the same bank details to pay through WeChat?

    Thanks again for sharing your experiences.

    1. Hi Srin, thanks for your comment. I always paid with Alipay, which was connected to my Chinese phone number and Chinese bank account. The Chinese bank account I topped up with my regular bank account. Lots of people also use WeChat to pay in a similar way.

      Kind regards,

      Danae

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